Sunday, January 24, 2010

How to Get Suspended and Influence People (book) by Adam Selzer

(A little related fun: check out the Gallery of Regrettable Food, which features recipes of the sort Leon is forced to endure. The 7-Up Dressing is, for me, the most gag worthy.)

I decided to read this one after reading this post at Bookshelves of Doom. The article it links to, about an Idaho mother who finds this book offensive and believes it should be completely removed from her public library, not just moved from the children's area to the YA section, is still available. The list of reasons why this book is offensive includes the nudity on its cover (top right, a Picasso-like nude with a black bars over her breasts - titillating, eh?), the cursing on and in the book (the back says "You don't have to be smart to be a smart-ass. But it helps."), and its topic. The woman's 4-year-old had picked it off a shelf in the juvenile area of the public library, and the woman didn't recoil in horror until after the book had been checked out and she brought it home. No, the book probably isn't appropriate for a 4-year-old, but that should have been easy enough to figure out before it was checked out. I could imagine it being moved to the YA section, which the library director suggested, but I agree with the director that it doesn't rate complete removal from the library. Boy, if stuff like this gets people up in arms, I'm really impressed with those few public libraries that have titles from Yaoi Press in their collections. Or maybe no one's noticed those yet?

Anyway, I read the book, because it's fun knowing more about what makes other people angry. I was not horribly offended by it. I don't think I enjoyed it as much as the Bookshelves of Doom writer, though.

Synopsis:

Leon is in his last year of middle school. He does his best to make sure no one finds out how weird his parents are - he loves them, but they're just so embarrassing in so many ways. They're food disaster enthusiasts, for one thing. They buy old cookbooks, things with titles like 100 meal ideas for Spam or Cooking with Ketchup, make the worst meals they can find, and make fun of the results. Leon's father is obsessively anti-Thomas Edison, so much so that Leon's middle name is Noside, "Edison" spelled backwards. Leon's father is an inventor, but none of his inventions work, and most of them are things that already exist anyway.

Leon is in the "gifted pool" (gift and talented class) at his school, along with a girl who loves communism, a guy who likes fire, a guy who writes dirty sonnets on bathroom walls, and Anna, Leon's best friend and super-secret crush, whose parents are, in Leon's opinion, much cooler than his own. Mrs. Smollet, who's in charge of the gifted pool, thinks they're all a bunch of delinquents who probably need to be expelled.

When Leon's class is given an assignment to make educational videos intended to be shown to 6th and 7th graders, Leon picks sex ed as his topic, thinking that the topic would allow him to legitimately include lots of nudity. He decides that he wants to make an avant garde (by which he means "makes no sense") sex education film that lets middle schoolers know that the things they feel and do, like masturbation and going through puberty, are completely normal. Leon's film ends up including lots of stills of famous paintings that feature nudity, sometimes with close-ups of certain areas (I bet you can guess which areas), with a kissing scene (planned to be supplied by two of Leon's friends, but eventually supplied by Leon and Anna), an explosion, and a voiceover of poetry explaining that things like puberty and masturbation are normal.

Mrs. Smollet decides to complain about the film, and Leon is suspended. It's not long before the whole school finds out that Leon has been suspended, and why, and teachers and other students start rallying around him. Even Leon and Anna's parents support Leon and his film. In the end, Leon gets to finish his film (although it won't officially be shown to 6th and 7th grade classes), and everyone who wants to see his film, which, by now, is everyone, does get to see it. Leon, who feared that his father would want him to become an accountant like him, is pleasantly surprised when he mentions his idea of studying film making and his father is supportive. All in all, Leon's last year of middle school ends pretty well.

Commentary:

I know, this synopsis is pretty short compared to what I usually write, but, really, not much goes on in this book. The main stuff I left out are the descriptions of Leon hanging out with his friends, Leon's parents' attempts at food disasters, and Leon helping his father with his newest inventions, which include novelty matches that light themselves when you clap.

On the one hand, the descriptions of Leon hanging out with his friends struck home with me, because they felt very realistic to me. I'll admit it, I was in what could be considered "gifted and talented" classes since elementary school. For the longest time, what that really meant was that I and the other kids in those classes got to do fun stuff that the other kids didn't get to do, like cutting up cow's brains. Supposedly we learned things from those activities, but I can't remember what it is we learned. Leon's gifted pool seems mainly intended to keep the "gifted" students (i.e., potential time bombs the school doesn't quite know how to handle) separate from the regular students. Mrs. Smollet occasionally gives them things to do, but mostly she just has them do crossword puzzles.

As I know from personal experience, "gifted" classes can attract a pretty odd bunch, and that certainly seems to be the case with the gifted pool. I, too, had a communism fan in my classes. One thing that Selzer hit on the nose is that, when you keep a group of bored "gifted" kids together for a few years, they'll come up with all kinds of crazy stuff to entertain themselves, and they'll do it as a pack. Leon and his friends try to shock Mrs. Smollet by claiming they're Satanists, by choosing terrible poetry when she asks them to pick good poetry, etc. For the most part, it's little stuff, until the educational video assignment. Pretty much the whole gifted pool is involved in Leon's film to one extent or another, although Leon's the only one who really gets in trouble for it.

I really liked the book's message about censorship (and I find it amusing that a book partly about censorship has been challenged). While I don't think Leon's movie would have taught the 6th and 7th graders all that much, it only toed the line of outrageousness. All the nudity came from famous paintings, which anyone could see just by flipping through artbooks or going to a museum. Oh, there was also a naked CPR dummy, but it only existed from the belly up (Mrs. Smollet tried to claim that the film showed the dummy masturbating, but, as Leon says, the dummy has no crotch). Yes, the voiceover talks about masturbation, but it's not the most offensive thing that could have come up in a sex ed video. Mrs. Smollet was being unreasonable and everyone in the book eventually figured that out. As happens in real life, the attempted censorship made Leon's film the most widely seen film out of all the ones made by his class. Didn't I say that the main reason I was reading this book in the first place was because of the attempt to have it removed from a public library?

While I liked its message, I thought the book was kind of...slow. A good chunk of the beginning is just Leon and his friends or Leon and his family doing things together. It's nice to read about, but it seemed to take a long time before Leon even began working on his film, and the attempted censorship of it took even longer. The book is more than two thirds over when Leon is suspended. When I first got this book, I kind of figured that Leon's film would take up more of the book than it did. Leon and Anna's game of "what do they have?" didn't really interest me. Then again, if Leon's film had taken up more of the book, I might've been even more bored, since his film didn't really interest me, either.

Overall, it was an ok book. It wasn't quite what I thought it would be, though.

Read-alikes:
  • The Gallery of Regrettable Food (non-fiction book) by James Lileks - If you thought Leon's parents' kitchen creations sounded hilarious and enjoyed Leon's descriptions of them, you'll love this book. All manner of horrors from American cookbooks from the 1940s-70s are highlighted and commented upon. Eww.
  • Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature (book) by Robin Brande - A YA book. Its protagonist, 14-year-old Mena, is ostracized by her church, friends, and parents for taking a stand against an effort to reform a supposedly gay classmate. There's even more drama when her high school science class begins learning about evolution. Those who liked the controversial aspects of Selzer's book and enjoyed Leon's willingness to stand up for his film and its messages might want to try this.
  • How Not to be Popular (book) by Jennifer Ziegler - Another YA book. Maggie's hippie parents don't like living in one place for long, so Maggie is constantly being uprooted. Maggie's tired of making friends only to lose them during yet another move, so she hatches a plan to become a social pariah at her newest school. She'll be so unpopular that no one will want to be friends with her, making her inevitable next move less painful. Of course, things don't work out the way Maggie intends them to. Those who liked How to Get Suspended...'s eccentric characters might want to try this.
  • Remake (book) by Connie Willis - In the near future, every movie that comes out of Hollywood is either a remake or a sequel, and every one of them digitally borrows scenery, props, and even actors and actresses from earlier movies. Tom's job involves finding things to borrow from other movies, as well as digitally altering original films (like Dumbo and Casablanca) to make them less offensive. Tom meets Alis, who wants to dance in the movies, really dance, not just have her face pasted on the body of the original dancer. He thinks her dream is impossible, until he starts seeing Alis in the movies he's editing. He becomes consumed by a need to find out how she's doing it. Did she really sell out, or is she traveling back in time to dance in the musicals when they were first filmed? Those who liked How to Get Suspended...'s censorship theme and parts about films and film making might want to try this. It's not a YA book, but, if I remember correctly, the only things it has that might be considered offensive are the parts Tom edits out of movies, some drug use, some talk about sex, and one non-detailed sex scene.

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